Builders' GreenStar initiative falters

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2010 - 9:28 PM

A homebuilders association and Minnesota GreenStar part ways because of disagreements over cost, focus of green buildings.

For Minnesota home builders, the path towards green housing has taken some unexpected turns. Buyers are scarce, money is tight, and now a partnership to certify green-built homes has dissolved.

Minnesota GreenStar and the Builders Association of the Twin Cities (BATC) say the organizations have reached an impasse over the goals of the certification program and have parted ways.

It was an amicable divorce, the groups say, acknowledging that the failure reflects shifting priorities for the construction industry, which seeks more flexible standards as builders deal with tough economic times.

"Now it's all about keeping people active and doing work," said Kathryn Fernholz, executive director of Dovetail Partners, a metro area nonprofit that promotes sustainability on a number of levels.

When it was launched in 2007, GreenStar was a conceived as a way to raise standards for green construction and allow homeowners to identify the green attributes of their dwelling in the same way that appliance manufacturers are able to identify their products as "Energy Star" efficient.

Minnesota was one of the few states in the nation to have such a program, which was lauded as a way to bring green construction into the mainstream. Environmentalists and builders alike embraced the program, because it helped set standards for different kinds of projects.

GreenStar also required third-party performance testing -- a critical component of the program -- at various stages of the project by groups including the Center for Energy and the Environment and the Neighborhood Energy Connection.

Consumers have increasingly embraced sustainable design, energy efficiency and other green ideas. But in the wake of the Great Recession, the construction industry continues to struggle, and many builders have had to focus on simply surviving. Consumers, too, are more cost-conscious than ever.

The cost of compliance for the GreenStar varies, depending on the scope of work and the square footage of the home, though it can reach 3.5 percent of the total built cost. But Mark Benzell, GreenStar's operations manager, said the certification can be achieved for less, noting that many green-building methods are no more expensive than traditional ones. In fact, he added, other standards, such as advanced framing techniques, can produce substantial savings over traditional options.

But with the construction market so fragile, any additional costs for green certification can be detrimental, especially when many buyers are wondering whether their home values have hit bottom, said Mike Otto, a home builder and remodeler.

That's the sentiment that was driving the Builders Association to develop a broader range of standards that would allow builders and consumers more choices to earn the GreenStar certification. Dave Siegel, BATC's executive director, said that members want to embrace an "incremental approach" and create various standards, including some low-level certification that doesn't require more-expensive third-party verification.

How to maintain credibility?

But such flexibility conflicts with the credibility and standards set for the program, Benzell said.

"I think there was a perception on the part of the builders that the Minnesota GreenStar program was too rigorous for them," he said. "And to be frank, they wanted something that was easier to get into that they could initiate without much cost or administrative commitment."

Since GreenStar's inception, 60 to 70 homes have been certified, and others are working through the process. Benzell said new partnerships and sponsors will be pursued without sacrificing the program's standards.

Siegel said that he questions the long-term viability of the group's business model, which he said has shifted too far toward educating consumers about green building rather than getting green houses into the marketplace. That's why, he said, BATC notified GreenStar in late October about its intention to separate.

"What we have is a philosophical difference," Siegel said. "We're not achieving the goals we set out to achieve."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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